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Monday, November 12, 2007

Rick Barkley's Journal--Kayaking The Allegheny-Part 6

Everybody Pylon!!

Having crashed the night before, I had to get up early on Day 4, to get water out of the kayak, and dry out some gear. By 8, I was ready to go, and the Allegheny’s next surprise was waiting for me. Many years ago, the lumber industry was big in the stretch from Port Allegany up into New York state, almost to Olean. The method they chose for gathering and transporting it was to cut it and drag it to the river, where they had installed wooden pylons into the riverbed, sticking up out of the water like teeth in a comb. The timber would catch on the pylons, and they’d load it up after they were done cutting.

The time for this method had come and gone long ago, but the pylons remain. Some still jut from the surface, but a lot of them have rotted off, just below the water line. The result is a mine field, forcing me to pick my way through them, so as not to get tipped by riding up on one at any speed. I finally got water I could paddle in, and couldn’t move along at any appreciable pace. It was also difficult to travel in a straight line very far, as the old timber lay crosswise just under the surface, as well as stray trees that storms had washed into the river, catching on both the gathered timber and pylons.

I navigated the stretch with minimum collisions, but it took 8½ hours to get to Eldred. I did something I’d never done before in the kayak, and never thought I would. Around Larabee, I pulled into a small lagoon to check the map, and as I finished reading, a message flashed across my mind, in big red letters: NAP! I pulled my hat low, slid down into the cockpit a little, and went out like a light for 20 minutes. That might have been the best power nap I ever took in my life, and I felt completely refreshed as I took off after.

I had set up camp, called Bev and Dave, and was enjoying some downtime, when Don drove in and stuck out his hand. This guy just won’t quit! He talked to me about how the trip had gone so far, and was quite interested in what I had found out from two local fishermen concerning the pylons. He said he’d try to come back in the morning to get a photo of me pulling out in the Murlene, something he didn’t have. We experienced role reversal, as I offered to load up gear and paddle out a ways, to get him his pictures. Much as I declined his suggestion to take the tram road on Day 1, he refused a staged photo op. Next morning, there he was, and he not only got his photo his way, he drove ahead of me a half mile or so, and found his way to the water for another shot.

The pylons continued to keep me on edge nearly to Olean before they disappeared, but in spite of that, I reached Portville New York way too early. I never pretended to be a cartographer, and using two different map sources for NY and PA, I figured wrong, so I kept paddling, trying to get to Olean. I’d made Portville at 10 a.m., and Olean by 2, so I had some time to dry out gear, and clean out the kayak. I was camped behind St. Bonaventure, and a walking path allowed me access to a Tops Market to buy water and Gatorade. Of course, I had to complicate things by getting lost on the way back. With a thousand things running through my mind when I walked up the path, I walked right by the trail to the camp on the way back. I was talking to Bev on the phone at the time, so now she knew I was walking in the woods in the dark with about 10 pounds of weight in a shopping bag. I finally figured out where to go, called her back to say I wouldn’t have to sleep under a tree, and settled in to do some writing and map reading.

I had taken a bath in the river at about 5, and felt so much cleaner and refreshed. Humping it back and forth on the trail looking for my camp pretty much erased that, and I didn’t quit sweating for a while after finding the tent. I had hoped to feel cooler the next day, but with a forecast of 88°, I knew I was going to be a sweat hog again, and hoped I’d be able to get in another bath in Salamanca.

Taking the time to inspect gear at Olean, as I lay it out on a tarp in the sun, I found my first lost equipment. I had purchased fairly inexpensive field glasses, just for the trip. I had them Velcroed to the side of the hull inside the kayak, thinking I might need them to see downriver to help decide a course. The need never really came, and it was a good thing, because the glasses didn’t have a good seal, and the recent days of heavy water in the kayak ruined them. I also lost a bag of Cheerios, that somehow suffered a hole in the Ziploc bag.

The Darkest Day

Day 6 started out so well. It was to be a hot sunny day, but I’d rather have it than rain anytime. I was able to paddle most of the time now, and the riverbed was wide enough with enough water in it to have a chance to follow the channels in the turns, and get out to walk less. One thing I learned about the early Allegheny: you can’t cheat the turns in the course of the river. The tendency is, if the river’s going to turn right a quarter mile ahead, stay to the right side, to cover the shortest distance between two points. In this case though, the river might make two channel turns in that stretch, and if you don’t follow them, you’ll find yourself walking and dragging a lot more. The hard part is seeing the channels while sitting in the kayak, You sit so low to the water, you can’t see the channel many times until it’s too late to get to the channel before the current carries you into the shallows.

Early in the day, I came around a right hand turn, going under a train trestle, and ahead of me about 100 yards or so, sat a black bear, right in the river, trying to keep cool. Just as I noticed him, he noticed me, and he jumped off the submerged rock he’d been sitting on, and swam for shore. I got the camera up in time to get off a quick shot, but could only hope I captured an image of what would turn out to be not only my only bear, but other than about 6 deer, my only sizeable wildlife sighting.

I lost Franklin while scoonching through a patch of shallows somewhere in the middle of the day. Scoonching consists of using your butt to shove the kayak forward, almost like a rowing machine exercise, if you see you’re traveling downhill, and don’t have far to go to deeper water. Ten to fifteen yards is doable, but Franklin hopped out during one of those, and the current didn’t carry him to where I could see I’d lost him. This was also the period of time where I was doing a lot of time bulling my way along, paddling laterally, almost pushing along using the river bottom as a fulcrum, letting the downhill and current help me get through. This is where I could have snapped a paddle blade, and not having a spare due to space limitations, would have been in dire straits.

I reached the city of Salamanca mid-afternoon, and pulled in at the canoe launch I had checked out in May, about 3:30. It was a grassy field, mowed, right below the high school, giving me reason to think it was a good place. I set up the tent, and was unloading the boat, when a couple kids started hanging around. They saw the wrist camera, and became pretty interested in all the gear. They asked a bunch of questions, which I didn’t think anything about, and I answered them politely, even though the only thing I wanted was to get set up, and cook dinner.

One kid in particular hung tight, as the others left. He was obviously one of the world’s troubled kids, one who’d rather stand in a pouring rain without an umbrella, than go home. As I made dinner, he was pouring out his life story, talking about his parents, wishing he had all the cool stuff I did, and could do something like I was doing. I told him he’d have to do things he didn’t like, such as go back to school, and get a job, if he wanted the money to have the stuff.

He said he saw his Dad coming home, and was going to leave. He walked about 30 yards, stopped, turned back, and said, “You know, you’re the first person who ever got through to me”. I didn’t like the sounds of that, knowing he wasn’t walking up to a normal home, and more than likely was going to anger his father figure, if he started spouting about the cool guy he met down by the river, who was filling his head with visions of grandeur.

I only had to wait about 10 minutes for my fears to be realized. I was just starting to eat, when the kid came running down through the field, and said, “Here comes my Dad”. An old Ford Taurus came roaring through the field, skidding to a stop inches from the tent. The guy got out of the car, slammed the door with both hands, and started screaming at the top of his lungs things I can’t print here. The jist of it was exactly what I predicted. He thought I had an ‘interest’ in his son.

He was about 6’3”, maybe 250. Long gray ponytail, tattoos everywhere, thick glasses, scraggly beard. My only mistake was, in disbelief, I let him get on to me, before I realized he was serious, and not just woofing. As I raised up out of the chair, he knocked me out of it. I rolled ( at this moment here in the living room, I hate going through this again, but I want to see if putting it in this journal will help bring me some closure, so I can forget about it.), and he got on top of me. I reached back, as he was throwing punches, grabbed the inside of his leg, and pulled myself out from under him.

I immediately went for his legs, to get some safety from the fists, and get a moment to take stock. I stayed there, drew the leg up off the ground, which made his task a lot tougher, and after he tried choking, thwarted by working my elbow into his arm and prying down, I remembered 2 things: he had emphysema, told to me by the kid, and the kid was standing there watching the whole thing. If I hung in there a minute more, he’d run out of gas, and he did. He just quit, as if a ref called time out. He was bent over at the waist, coughing and wheezing, and I wondered what the Heck he thought I was supposed to do, wait for him to recover, to resume the fight?

I realized I couldn’t win this fight, even if I kicked his butt, because the kid would undoubtedly go for help for his Dad, and the kid had friends from all kinds of ethnic groups, which told me I’d made an error in my choice of camping spots. The most amazing thing happened then; the guy started talking to me like we were pals. He APOLOGIZED for what happened. He started helping me round up the stuff that had been knocked all over the ground, and said he’d fix my glasses, that he was good at fixing stuff.

Next, he wanted to know all about the trip, the kayak, the Bills, the Sabres, apologized a couple more times, said he was just overprotective of his son since his wife had left, and on and on. It was easy to see what kind of mind I was dealing with, and I decided to play along, until I could get away from him on friendly terms, as he was likely to go back up to what I now realized was the low income housing project (right beside the high school), down a half bottle of Jack, and make some other rash decision.

I found I couldn’t get rid of him or the kid, and between them they must have apologized 15 times. I finally told them it was all okay, that I just wanted to call my wife. Did I mention that he told me I’d made a good choice of dinner entre├ęs, that he liked chicken teriyaki with rice, too? Possibly the most twisted mind I’d ever met. They finally went on their way, but not before he told me what a mistake I made picking there to camp. The “Red Eyes”, as he called them, the worst of the local population that frequented that area, liked that place for late night drinking. As they drove away, I was on the phone, my mind racing as to what to do. I had already decided I couldn’t get far enough away by dark, so I couldn’t tear down camp and move. I didn’t know a soul between there and Buffalo, meaning Bev would have to come down and lift me out of there.

I couldn’t reach her, as, unknown to me, she was in Wal-Mart, with no signal. I knew she was supposed to be at a church meeting at the home of Lisa Fox soon, but I didn’t have her number. I tried Pastor Fitch, but got his voice mail, and that wasn’t good enough right now. As I cleared out of his number, the next P on my phone book was a fellow Church Council member and friend, Paula Dubreville. I hit the send button, and she happened to be home. She listened to my cryptic request, and shocked me back to reality with her reply: “Bet you didn’t figure on that, did you?”

Paula knew about the trip, and knew I had been planning and working on it for a long time. It was the last thing I expected to hear, and it made me laugh out loud, in spite of the fact I was feeling no small amount of fear. She quickly got the number, and I hurried to call. No good. Called Paula back, as daylight started slipping away, by now almost 6 p.m. She tried another source, got a different number, and I made contact. Shortly thereafter, Bev called me, and I got her moving down the road. I don’t like thinking about what Bev must have felt as she started driving south, because I didn’t give her details. I told her not to waste time with the explanation until after she was moving toward me. While I waited, I called Paula back, to give her more details, to thank her for what I perceived as her life-saving help, certainly from the standpoint of the expedition, and to let her know I was officially regarding her as a smart-ass, but one who I could count on in a crisis.

While I waited anxiously for Bev to make the hour drive, I saw two examples of what the loony tune was talking about. Two different carloads of guys drove past, slowing to a stop, looking down at me with grins on their faces, and flipping me off, then driving slowly away. I kept my phone out most of the time, letting them know at least that I could be in contact with help. I tore down the camp into whatever I could find, so I could throw everything into the car in the least amount of time. I left the tent up in case my ‘new buddy’ looked down from the projects. I didn’t want him running down to see why I was bailing. Once Bev arrived, and she got over the red scratches on my face and bruises on my arms, I loaded the car, took down the tent, and put the Murlene on the top.

We drove back home, talked about it all at length, and I began to think how I could keep this mess from ruining the project.

Sixth Installment: Rick Barkley kayaked the Allegheny River from it's beginning near Gold, PA to it's end at Pittsburgh this summer. Solomon's words chronicled that trip from Rick's brief reports from the river. This is Rick's in depth journal of this adventure of a lifetime, presented in installments, as it is quite lengthy. I think you will find it very interesting. Editor.

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